Forbes article

An Uncomfortable Confucian Mirror

After 60 months of head-down drilling into Chinese philosophy, culture, and history (and 13 years now of living in Confucian East Asia–China, Korea, now Singapore), it’s time to surface. My aims in posting here are simply to collect my own thoughts on the relevance — which to me is huge — of Chinese philosophy to the world today, and of the challenge of teaching it to Western students so that they can do more than spout cliché factoids about it. Things are getting interesting on that front — but more on that later.

Exhibit 1: Xunzi as Cultural Physician

Reading this thinker from 250 bce feels like reading a thinker viewing the world — and yes, particularly the American one — today:

The Evidence of a Chaotic Age

Men wear brightly colored clothing; their demeanor is softly feminine; their manners are lascivious; their minds are bent on profit; their conduct lacks consistency; their music is wicked; and their patterns and decorations are gravely in error and gaudy. They nurture the needs of the living without measure, but they send off their dead in a niggardly manner and with blackly impure principles. They despise proper etiquette* and moral principles, and prize instead valor and feats of strength. When they are poor, they become robbers; when they are rich, they become predators. An orderly age is the opposite of this.

–Xunzi, “Discourse on Music” (Knoblock, transl.)

Clearly the Confucian Xunzi diagnoses cultural disease, then and now, with uncanny accuracy. Things get more interesting when we ask whether Confucianism offers any cures.

In future posts, I’ll be arguing yes — and not only Confucianism, but also Daoism and other Chinese schools of thought.

*changing “ritual” to “proper etiquette”–in Confucianism, ritual and etiquette were arguably near-synonyms. We think “religion” when we see the word, and misunderstand Confucianism as a result.

Image: Forbes


How China Became Homophobic: A (Not-So-) Suprising History

Interesting: History of Homosexuality and Tolerance/Intolerance in China: an email exchange between a Fellow Faculty Member (FFM) and me:

The Chinese view on polygamy was notoriously different from the Christian West’s — the more concubines the merrier — so I’d be surprised if they didn’t perceive homosexuality as a natural taste, as variable as food preferences.

FFM sent me an email  asking about the Chinese view of homosexuality because Singapore has a very intolerant official policy on it. Some of my students asked about this after class or in class, so I’m sharing it. Here’s the whole (slightly edited) email conversation.


Hi Clay!

[A friend] and i were discussing the Singapore policies regarding gays and wondered if they had any root in classical Chinese thinking, Confucianism, etc.

I’m looking for a parallel to the Old Testament Christianity roots for that bias–wondered if you could shed some light, as our resident China expert.

Best regards,


My response:

Can’t say I know SG’s gay policies beyond recalling having read that gay bars are illegal, etc.

Pure speculation, but it seems safe to say that Confucian family values–in which no sons equals no lineage and the end of the family line–would at least discourage not marrying and reproducing, since there’s no greater shame than not passing the name to the next generation.

Note that does not mean homosexuality is necessarily condemned in and of itself. The Chinese are and have been notoriously silent on sexuality throughout their history (at least in their literature), but this again seems to be a reflection of the need to project a proper decorum by keeping such private matters private.

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that homosexuality is conceived of in a way entirely different from our own traditions’ connotations of sin and abomination. The Chinese view on polygamy is notoriously different–the more concubines the merrier–so I’d be surprised if they didn’t perceive homosexuality as a natural taste, like food preferences.

It’s one of the many areas I’ve yet to explore (I find the contrasts of Eastern and Western gender norms — especially the masculine ones — more interesting, and sexuality seems a subset of that in my eyes). But I can offer you a book I got a couple years ago on the topic of homosexuality in traditional China (lesbianism, I just noticed, is treated in the appendix), but I haven’t read it. If you do browse it, I’d love to hear what you learn.

Sorry to be of so little help.



Clay, this was a useful source.

The bottom line seems to be that there was a long history of deep tolerance for homosexuality, even extending to marriage and property rights.

Not surprisingly, there were varying accommodations to ‘gayness,’ including at least one period when adolescent boys regularly took lovers and then moved on to hetero behavior when it was time to have a family.

There is strong evidence for Puyi of the Qing dynasty being openly gay, so the author makes note that the behavior ran from top to bottom of society.

Enter the West:

The missionaries, sailors (!) and merchants were all revolted by the acceptance of sodomy (male-male sex) that they saw, and so started to campaign against it.

Ultimately, these laws got some traction and acceptance in conjunction with local intolerance of the excesses of the Ming dynasty.

By 1912 or so, the tradition and tolerance was disappearing quickly.

The author notes that the current laws in Taiwan, HK and PRC have roots not in Marxism but rather as secularized versions of Leviticus (one of the books of Moses in the Hebrew Bible/Christian Old Testament) and (Late Medieval Christian theologian) Thomas Aquinas.

Ironically, the PRC now blames the West for importing sordid western values into China, ‘causing’ homosexuality.

Vague local laws against hooliganism and outrageous acts are used to keep the gay population in line, and like Singapore, the Chinese maintain that the overall percentage of gayness in Chinese is much lower than the worldwide population.

Thanks for the insight, my summary then is:

1. Western laws reviling gayness were imported during the colonial period.
2. They gained force in the revolt against the excesses of the Ming dynasty.
3. PRC political spin blames (recent, post-Christian) Western exhortations of tolerance for gayness as ‘degraded imports of the West’.
–All contribute to anti-gay bias in the region.


So: China tolerated homosexuality until the West came 500 years ago and imposed its Christian views. China then started discriminating. Now that the West is abandoning its Christian discrimination against gays, it’s criticizing China’s intolerance–which China largely got earlier….from the West. Weird.

On Minding the Body

A thought that keeps returning to me lately: “From Confucianism to Daoism to Buddhism to Martial Arts and Taijiquan to Acupuncture and Massage and Traditional Chinese Medicine: the Chinese have always been so mentally one with the body.”

It’s more astonishing because we in the West have not been this attuned, owing to our religion’s historical (and literal) demonization of it. Only very recently–the last two or three centuries–have we tried to make peace with it.
Beach resort

Vacations: A Diagnosis

“Vacation” is a suspicious word. To “empty” oneself from one’s life when one is not “working.” What does this say about the value of our life’s work? And this desire to “vacate” ourselves from our locale to “anywhere but here” on airplanes, Climate Change be damned, in order to escape to sanitized resort cells on predictable beaches: what does it say about our relations with our neighbors and communities, with the earth and its future?

Me? Spring Break is here, and here I sit, as on any other day, enjoying my life of study and discovery — finally able to read those pages today on Ming Confucian Wang Yangming! — over coffee at one of my neighborhood Hawker Centers, happily exchanging smiles with the Malay, Chinese, and Indian regulars here who are my community.

The Way is here with good work and good neighbors, not there, alone, with no work.

If there is such a place

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